PULLMAN – Paul Wulff had a specific point in mind.
But what he said also touched an overarching theme.
“We’re struggling trying to capitalize on opportunities when we do get them,” the Washington State football coach said Saturday after the Cougars fell to California 20-13 before 17,648 at Martin Stadium.
Wulff was referring to WSU’s offense not converting chances presented by the defense – forcing two turnovers – and special teams – a 33-yard punt return to the Cal 27 – into touchdowns.
But he just as easily could have been talking about the Cougars’ opportunity to break a long list of losing streaks, from their 16 consecutive Pac-10 defeats, to the 18 games against FBS foes without a win, to this year’s eight consecutive losses, giving WSU a 1-9 record (0-7 Pac-10).
To a man, the Cougars’ players who trudged to the interview room talked about the crushing nature of the defeat.
Linebacker C.J. Mizell, who led one of WSU’s better defensive efforts of the season with 12 tackles, put it best.
“Every loss hurts, but this one hurts a little more because we had them by the neck and we just let off of them,” the freshman said.
The Cougars scored first, which hasn’t happened since the USC defeat earlier this season. They led at halftime, which hasn’t happened in a Pac-10 game since the 2007 Apple Cup.
They were within a touchdown in the fourth quarter, with three chances to either take a lead or tie the game. In nine plays, the Cougars lost 4 yards.
“The bottom line is we didn’t make plays we needed to make,” offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy said.
It started, but certainly didn’t finish, with quarterback Jeff Tuel.
The sophomore suffered through his worst complete-game passing effort of his career, completing just 9 of 25 attempts. His 92 yards in the air were the fewest he’s had all season and snapped a streak of nine consecutive games of at least 200 yards.
Though Tuel missed some open targets, he didn’t get much help. There were at least five dropped balls and six sacks, which doesn’t count the times Tuel was forced to squirm out of trouble.
WSU’s Jared Karstetter, fourth in the Pac-10 with 4.55 catches per game, had one. Marquess Wilson, ninth in the nation with 98.33 yards per game, had 50 on four catches.
Even the Cougars’ one touchdown drive, giving them an early second-quarter 7-0 lead, included 60 yards rushing, the final 10 on Logwone’s Mitz’s third touchdown of the season.
Mitz had 54 on 10 carries and Tuel had 34, but gained 73 on 12 rushing attempts, as Sturdy turned him loose for the first time this year.
“We need to utilize him more in the running game to get more runs,” Wulff said. “If we’re going to try to win games, he’s going to have to do it with his legs as well, to a certain degree.”
The Bears tied the game immediately – Shane Vereen powering in from 2 yards out, – but presented WSU with a huge opportunity soon after when Aire Justin broke free for a season-long punt return.
But four plays lost 6 yards and Andrew Furney had to convert a 51-yard field goal, the first of his career. Three plays later Brock Mansion, making his first start at quarterback for 5-4 Cal (3-3 Pac-10), threw an out pattern right to Nolan Washington at the Bears’ 45.
The redshirt freshman returned his first career pick to the 40 with 46 seconds before half. Three plays gained 8 yards and Furney tried a 50-yarder. It missed right.
“We need to get touchdowns,” Wulff said.
That was apparent when the Bears put together back-to-back 27-yard plays – the second receiver Jeremy Ross’ touchdown run – on their first second-half possession.
Another Mansion interception gave WSU the ball near midfield, but seven plays netted just 13 yards and Furney had to convert a 48-yard field goal.
Still, WSU trailed just 14-13 going into the final 15 minutes.
The defense, which held Cal to 383 yards of total offense, the second fewest it’s yielded all season, made one stop – WSU followed with a three-and-out – and should have made another.
The Bears had a third-and-20 at their 44 with about 8 minutes left. Mansion hit Ross on a slant and Mizell grabbed him at the WSU 45. But the 5-foot-11 Ross dragged Mizell and most of the Cougars’ defense for another 10 yards and a first down.
And the Bears kept the chains moving, finally scoring with 5:24 left on Vereen’s 1-yard run